By Harry Keaney
“Ah, the Yank is back. You’re welcome home.”
If I’ve heard this glib greeting once, I’ve heard it a thousand times since my return to Ireland 15 months ago. Glib but genuine, a greeting in essence uttered in ignorance because if I had returned from New Orleans or Los Angeles, they’d still refer to me here as “the Yank.”
Even before November 1990, when adventure rather than necessity lured me to the U.S., I had concluded that living in Ireland meant accepting, for one thing, that the country was a conundrum of contradictions. Just like that glib but genuine “Yankee” greeting.
But as with many things in Ireland, there’s always more than meets the eye. When they call you “the Yank,” it’s not just a label. There are the implications of newly acquired cockiness, that now, although you’re back, you’re different. And that, of course, you’re loaded with dosh.
“Go on, ya boy, ya, throw a fistful of dollars in there now like a good man,” came a wise wag’s whisper from behind me one Sunday morning at Mass during the offertory collection. Turning around, I felt like giving the little man to my rear the money basket, pancake style, into the face, but I guess New York’s brashness did not rub off on me that much after all.
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But in my 10 years away from Ireland, I know I’ve changed. Proponents of American stereotypes irk me, just as those who stereotyped the Irish did so during my time in the U.S. I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen, an admirer of those American traits that I have come to genuinely believe help make the country the meritocracy that it is, where not trying is the only guarantee of failure. Hence, my biggest disappointment since my return here is my failure, despite my best efforts, to buy my own house. On three occasions, deals collapsed, mainly, I would say, because of lack of planning and foresight on the part of sellers.
Americans, I felt, were great ones for their plans and projects, their time slots and schedules. And if they were paying for something, they rightfully demanded what they expected. Now here, I am less accepting of mediocrity, shoddy workmanship, inefficient service and poor timekeeping. And I’ve become totally intolerant of what we call the “cute hoor waiting to pull a fast one.”
“Ah, but you never lost the accent,” my friends assure me. Whether that’s a compliment or not, I’m never quite sure.
Yes, adapting to living here again can at times be challenging, even trying. The cost of living, relative to wages, is high, a fact most visiting Americans only suddenly realize the first time they fill their rented car with gas. Although people are becoming more environmentally aware, how to dispose of their litter and waste is becoming an increasingly contentious issue. Now, in an effort to eradicate the scourge of the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag, a levy of 15 cents has been imposed on each one, the money raised going to a special environmental fund.
Most businesses close for lunch, while in Sligo, some stores are closed all day Monday. On one of my first days back at work here in the offices of my hometown newspaper, the Sligo Champion, I remained in the office after 1 p.m. to finish writing an article, just as I often did in the Irish Echo. But when the Champion’s owner popped in to pick up his Irish Times and Irish Independent about 1:10 p.m., I think he was genuinely surprised to see me, the only one left in the office, still at my desk.
Pharmacies, among the most lucrative of retail businesses, are currently campaigning against proposed deregulation, surely a scenario that could evoke little sympathy from anyone returning from the U.S., where the marketplace, with its Duane Reades and CVSs, reign supreme.
And, of course, there’s the traffic. As I made my way to work for the first time on the frosty, foggy morning of Jan. 8, 2001, following my return to Ireland, I thought what a pleasure as I drove toward Sligo on a brand new highway, better than I-95, on which I had so often traveled from New York to Stamford, Conn., where I lived. But on arriving at a roundabout on the outskirts of Sligo, I came to a standstill. After more than 20 years of debate, Sligo’s so-called inner relief road is still not complete, resulting in traffic having to crawl through the town. Last week, the project was allocated euro 1.27 million, only enough to cover arch’ological work; euro 10 million was needed this year. For now, it seems, the N4 into Sligo will remain a highway to hell if you intend to drive through the town during rush hour in the mornings or on Thursday or Friday afternoons. Another addition to our conundrum of contradictions.
But Ireland is also a changed and fast-changing place for the better. With its youthful population, boosted by an influx of returned emigrants, there’s now a more questioning attitude. There’s also the beauty of a growing multiculturalism; a little boy in my son Padraig’s class in elementary school is from Pakistan. One summer’s evening, when a commotion outside the house where I live drew me to the window, I saw Padraig and his younger brother, Gearoid, desperately trying to teach some of the neighbor’s children the intricacies of baseball, using their coats and jackets as bases. In a local hotel bar, I’m served a Budweiser by a young woman from Thailand who supplements her income by picking mushrooms. We have French and Italian restaurants, even a Russian tearoom.
Corruption — and there seems to be plenty of it in this Celtic Tiger era — is at last being pursued to the highest levels. There’s the continued cultural vibrancy eloquently personified, for example, by U2 and Enya’s enduring success. And, of course, we’re no longer the island Irish lurking on the periphery; we’re Europeans, with our own euro and cents.
That Europe is now so much part of life here came home to me quite soon after I began my new job with the Sligo Champion. One of my early assignments was to fly to Brussels to cover a committee meeting of the European Parliament, which a Sligo politician was addressing. Another Sligo-born journalist, RTE’s former Europe Editor, Tommie Gorman, was recently presented with the prestigious European of the Year Award.
But if last year was my first in 10 out of America, America was certainly not out of my mind, even on a professional level as a journalist. On Sept. 11, just after returning from lunch, one of my colleagues called to say a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Another of his American jokes, I thought.
Soon after, he called again to say a second plane had crashed into the other tower. And then, as we listened in shock to the radio and watched in disbelief at CNN and Sky, the horrible reality unfolded. Soon, even the reporters in our newsroom in Sligo were rewriting our front page as we scrambled to find out as much as we could about one of our countyman, 35-year-old Kieran Gorman, from Mullinabreena, who, it’s believed, was caught in one of the towers as it came crashing down. His remains still have not been found.
Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, another Sligoman, Fr. Frank O’Grady, from Gurteen, a U.S. Army chaplain based at Fort Belvoir, Va., was engaged in work that was to earn him the Army Commendation Medal.
And only last week, I covered a meeting of Sligo County Council at which the visiting vice president of the Sligo Association of New York, Bridie O’Reilly, was presented with a special plaque to place at Ground Zero in memory of all those with Sligo connections who died on Sept. 11.
Before long, I too hope to have the opportunity to pay my respects at Ground Zero, perhaps retrace my footsteps up Fifth Avenue, maybe meander into Grand Central Terminal again and take the Metro North to Stamford.
The part of me that’s “the Yank” would then be home.
(Harry Keaney was an editor at the Irish Echo for eight years.)